BLOOD IN THE FACE

The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture

By James Ridgeway

Thunder's Mouth Press. 203 pp. $29.95

Dealing with the American lunatic right is never a benign experience, but at its most harmless it is an event somewhat surrealistically akin to becoming entrapped in the imagination of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

For example, I vividly recall a meeting in an Idaho coffee shop with the top hierarchy of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian-Aryan Nations, a tiny, rabid sect that had performed the astonishing but, when you thought about it, eminently logical feat of turning Nazism into a religion. The inarticulate Maximum Leader was a retired engineer who had helped to design the Lockheed Tri-Star airliner. The head of his Speakers Bureau was a former California cop who was clearly losing a battle with an advanced case of hydrophobia. The head of security was a balding, amiable farmer who periodically checked his watch and dutifully left the table to deposit another quarter in the parking meter.

At the core of their beliefs was an iron-clad conviction that the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel had moved to Europe and become Germans, Scandinavians, Englishmen and Frenchmen; world Jewry, therefore, consisted of a bunch of impostors. Many of their theories -- and I have been simplifying in the interests of both brevity and sanity -- were reflected in the writings of a certain Eustace Mullins, who believes, among many other things, that the phrase "Have a nice day" is a Jewish code designed to tip off insiders to an imminent slaughter of Gentiles. We are dealing, in short, with a bunch of scrambled eggs.

What, then, are we to make of "Blood in the Face," James Ridgeway's attempt to analyze the phenomenon I have just presented in, I hope, a compelling snapshot? This is a distinctly odd work, a small coffee-table book, profusely illustrated and weirdly superficial. True, he covers most of the requisite ground: the Klan, the Posse Comitatus, George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party, the National Alliance, the Order, the Skinheads and Anglo-Israelism, also known as Christian Identity (see above). Moreover, he is commendably alert to the fact that the adherents of these closely related groups are insanely dangerous in ways that make your average mugger look like an upstanding citizen with a temporary cash-flow problem.

I am troubled, however, by what Ridgeway does not seem to know, and by the chilling conclusion this apparent ignorance causes him to draw, if only by omission. For one thing, Ridgeway nowhere mentions that, with the exception of the Klan (and then only twice in Klan history, in the 1920s and '60s, the recent showing of David Duke in the Louisiana senatorial contest notwithstanding), all of the organizations under discussion constitute the tiniest of fringe groups. Under the circumstances, this is hardly surprising -- one of Christian Identity's spiritual leaders, former Michigan businessman and Klan leader Robert E. Miles, claims to have revived the Albigensian heresy (although Ridgeway doesn't seem to know it), a matter of great interest principally to himself, a handful of followers and perhaps Italian novelist Umberto Eco, who also revived the Albigensian heresy in "Foucault's Pendulum."

These guys are dangerous, yes, but largely to the people in their immediate vicinity -- in the mid-1980s, for example, the Order, an Aryan Nations splinter group, set forth on a campaign of bombing, counterfeiting and bank robbery that culminated in the murder of Alan Berg, a Denver talk-show host, and the death of the faction's leader in a fiery shootout on an island in Puget Sound. But although they will always be with us in one form or another, the Klan and the neo-Nazis are at a historic low point in their fortunes, their memberships decimated, their activities constantly scrutinized by the police.

Although Ridgeway has been forced to draw most of his examples of their murderous antics from the early years of the past decade, when agricultural depression unhinged the minds of a few dispossessed farmers, he nonetheless appears to believe that lunatic racists constitute a danger to the Republic, and that their beliefs are catching, like a cold. They don't and they aren't.

The danger, a very real one, lies further to the east, in Poland where Lech Walesa is playing a dangerous game, in Hungary, in a disintegrating Soviet Union where the rightist Pamyat movement is openly, insanely, but not yet violently antisemitic. It is there, in a soil richly prepared by a discredited communism, that a monstrous evil is struggling to be reborn.

The reviewer is a novelist and contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.